At about 10 p.m. on Oct. 8, my 16-year-old nephew Liam looked out from his bedroom window and saw an ominous red glow pulsating from the nearby oak woodland hills. During the day the Diablo winds were unusually high for Napa. He woke up his father. The Atlas Peak Fire suddenly appeared out of nowhere, fueled by acres of inadequately managed oak woodlands full of dry grasses, brush and unhealthy trees, and surged down into the neighborhood along the Silverado Trail. Liam and his father quickly gathered a few precious family photos. Within minutes, came a knock on the door. A firefighter told them to immediately evacuate.
“As we jumped into our car, I could hear houses in the neighborhood across the road exploding like bombs going off, one after the other,” Liam said. “It sounded like we were in a warzone.”
We’re in a war against catastrophic fire. Negligence has consequences. Wars have casualties. For decades, we have at five different levels of responsibility — homeowner, neighborhood, local, state and federal government — failed each year as private and public property owners to adequately remove grasses, brush and trees to the extent necessary to prevent catastrophic fire.
Over the last year and a half, there have been 14,586 wildland fires in California, which have charred almost 2 million acres, killed firefighters and residents, destroyed over 10,000 structures, sent thousands to hospitals, spewed toxic pollutants and greenhouse gases equivalent to millions of additional cars and trucks into our air, water, lungs and hearts and obliterated wildlife. The ability to obtain affordable homeowners’ insurance is now in jeopardy for many in California.
We are losing the war against catastrophic fire because the too many people at all five different levels of responsibility — homeowner, neighborhood, local, state and federal government — are not proactively implementing a defense-in-depth strategy.
What is a “defense-in-depth strategy?” I saw how it worked as an officer of the deck aboard the aircraft carrier USS Midway in the Indian Ocean. As our jets protected shipping going in and out of the Persian Gulf, we knew that at anytime, day or night, Iranian F-14 supersonic jets could attack and potentially sink our ship. Our defense-in-depth strategy started with our ship itself — with a Gatling gun called the Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) and air defense missiles — then expanded out to cruisers and destroyers and finally to our F-18 jets that could intercept any Iranian jet hundreds of miles before it got close to the aircraft carrier.
We can win the war against catastrophic if we proactively deploy a defense-in-depth strategy. What is our most vital asset, our aircraft carrier? Our home. If we don’t create defensible space around our home, firefighters won’t risk their lives to save it. Print out the “Homeowners Checklist” from the Cal Fire website, walk around your home; list the steps that you will take to make your home fire-safe. Take action now.
The next concentric circle of defense is our neighborhood. In a firewise community, homeowners work together as a team to ensure defensible space is created throughout the neighborhood. There are only a handful of firewise communities in Auburn. Neighborhoods, take action now.
The third concentric circle of defense is what our locally elected officials are doing to transform traditionally reactive fire agencies into proactive fire agencies that aggressively reach out to homeowners to create defensible space and aggressively enforce weed abatement and fuel reduction ordinances. In the recent report, “Municipal Service Review for Fire and Emergency Services West Placer County,” there is good information about how fast our highly skilled firefighters in each of the 15 fire agencies respond to emergencies. They do an excellent and heroic job. However, the 600-page report provides zero performance data about whether the 15 fire agencies are proactively conducting defensible space inspections and enforcing the weed abatement and fuel reduction ordinances. Ensure locally elected officials are taking action now.
Lastly, our state and federal government have failed through negligence and ideology to take proactive steps needed to defend our communities in the wildland fire wars. Each of these governments spends less than 0.25 percent of their general fund budgets on brush and tree thinning programs. They have failed to enact reforms to provide incentives for the private sector to thin our overgrown, unhealthy forests and to support renewable biomass energy.
President Lincoln was asked, after years of disappointing Union defeats, why he liked General Grant. He replied, “He fights.” To win the war against catastrophic fire, every homeowner, neighborhood, local, state and federally elected official needs to enter the arena and fight. Let’s save our communities. Let’s take action now.
Kevin Hanley is the chairman of the Greater Auburn Area Fire Safe Council and a former mayor of Auburn.